GROUNDWORK by Robert Welch


Email this review


Centuries of Irish history are woven through the lives of two families, with distinctly mixed results, in this US debut from poet and critic Welch. Although threads of the story go back to the 16th century and bloody encounters between Irish clans and their English “masters,” the bulk of narrative focuses on early 20th-century events involving the Condons and the O’Dwyers. As the century begins, Mary O’Dwyer, fresh from secretarial school, finds a job with the prosperous merchant family Holmes, and soon draws the eye of the family scion. Later, pregnant by him, she’s forced by his father to leave Cork to have the baby in England, and goes into exile with Jim Condon, a happy-go-lucky chauffeur and streetcar driver who’s smitten with her. Mary leaves Jim after she finds him frolicking with the landlady, but he follows her back to Cork, marrying her and having several more children with her. Jim becomes a drunk and goes blind, however, leaving Mary no choice but to return to the Holmes firm to find work for eldest son Michael, who is in fact Holmes’s son, although Michael doesn’t know it. He becomes a trusted employee, but tragedy hangs on him like a shroud: Though trusted, he never rises in the firm; he never learns who he is until he’s suffered years of increasing abuse from his real father, also an alcoholic; he doesn’t marry until late in life, and then watches mutely as his only child dies from diphtheria. Michael’s brother and sister also fail to prosper, with Con opting for the monastery just as two Jewish brothers, impressed by his abilities, are ready to stake him in his own business, and with Katherine marrying a factory worker, trading her bright future for a stifling domestic life. The family weave on view here, strong and sincere at its best, still isn’t enough to hold these many disparate fragments together.

Pub Date: April 17th, 1998
ISBN: 0-85640-608-2
Page count: 202pp
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1st, 1998